The vital and decorative art of ancient Assyria, hitherto unrepresented to the Institute's collection, may now be seen in a magnificent relief of the ninth century B.C. just acquired from the Ethel Morrison Van Derlip Fund. This relief represents an important addition to the permanent collection, since Assyria, together with Egypt, played a major part in the shaping of the Greek tradition.The Institute's relief of a winged genius is one of a group of sculptures unearthed during the excavations at Nimrud by Sir Henry Layard about the middle of the last century. It was given by Sir Henry to an American missionary then living in Mosul, and was subsequently presented to an American collection from which the Institute acquired it. Examples of the sculptures discovered by Layard are to be found in several American museums, but they are seen at their completest and most imposing in the British Museum.The discovery of the remains at Nimrud, on the upper Tigris, was one of the most important of a golden age of exploration. It made possible the further, documented reconstruction of events in a region that is notable not only as the traditional birthplace of civilization but of the human race itself. To the south, in the fertile strip between the Tigris and the Euphrates, lies the Valley of Shinar. Further north, along the Euphrates, the land was known as Akkad, and further north still, where the Tigris swings in a bend below the eastern highlands, was the land of Asshur, where the Assyrians held sway. In the fruitful valley encompassed by the two rivers: the wide and peaceful Euphrates, the plunging Tigris, mankind is represented as having been settled from earliest times.Nimrud lies about twenty miles to the south of modern Mosul, and to the south and west of Nineveh and Khorsabad; magic names, all, which conjure up pictures of the splendid civilizations that existed in these regions long before the birth of Christ. Nimrud lies on the site of ancient Calah, one of four cities founded by Asshur, the ancestor of the Assyrians. To it went Asshur, as related in the Tenth chapter of Genesis:“And Cush begat Nimrod: he began to be a mighty one in the earth. He was a mighty hunter before the Lord. . . . And the beginning of his kingdom was Babel, and Erech, and Accad, and Calneh, in the land of Shinar. Out of that land went forth Asshur, and builded Nineveh, and Rehoboth-Ir, and Calah, And Resen between Nineveh and Calah: the same is a great city.”The city was founded, according to Assyrian monuments, by Shalmaneser I about 1300 B.C. His successors abandoned Nimrud for Nineveh, but when Ashur-nasir-pal came to power in 884 he rebuilt it and erected his palace there. It was this palace that Sir Henry Layard excavated about 1850, and it was in its lofty chambers that the splendid sculptures, of which the Institute's relief is an example, were found. Today the great majority of them are in the collection of the British Museum. In this country the largest group is to be found in the Metropolitan Museum, but examples may also be seen in Boston, Cleveland, Worcester, and Kansas City.The Institute's relief represents one of the winged geniuses or demi-gods that marched in endless procession around the walls of the palace of Ashur-nasir-pal, the king who launched the second great period of Assyrian supremacy, and who is famous alike for his cruelty and for the monuments he caused to be raised in his kingdom. The nature of those monuments, particularly as regards sculpture, reflects the spirit of the Assyrian people: vigorous, brutal, unimaginative, and realistic to a striking degree. Having observed their sculptures, one is left with an exceptionally clear impression of the Assyrian character despite the fact that they are in no sense portraits of the people they were meant to represent. King, warrior, demi-god, and slave are all portrayed with the same strong, rapacious features: the eyes deeply cut at the corners, the nostrils flaring, and the lips ruthless but occasionally, as in the Institute's relief, wearing the ghost of a smile. The only way of differentiating between their rank and function is by their costume and accessories.Yet for all the stranglehold of artistic convention, the Assyrians produced an art that was vigorous and convincing. Ashur-nasir-pal wanted to glorify himself and his reign. To that end his sculptors carved in stone the story of his conquests, his amusements, his cruelties, and various incidents of daily life. They attacked their work with such energy and gusto that, despite the detailed and meticulous representation of their figures, the sculptures of Ashur-nasir-pal's palace bore the mark of brute power that might be expected to distinguish the products of artists working for a king who boasted, after a mighty battle:“One out of every two did I slay; I built a wall before the gates of the city; I flayed the chiefs alive and covered the wall with their skin. Some of them were walled up alive in the masonry, others were impaled along the wall; I had a large number of them flayed in my presence, and I covered the wall with their skin. I made wreaths of their heads and garlands of their corpses riddled with wounds.”Events of this nature, veiled with a band of fine inscription describing that time and place of their occurrence, were numerous among the decorations of the king's palace. Alive with action and full of a sense of urgency, they reflected a significant facet of Ashur-nasir-pal's character. It emerges quite startlingly in a relief from the Metropolitan's collection. Here the king, in one of his quieter moments, accepts a drinking bowl from his cup-bearer. And while the figure is in no sense a portrait there emanates from it a spirit of cruelty that is the more menacing because of an indefinable quality compounded of refinement and naïveté.This same quality is apparent in the Institute's figure of a demi-god, although it is not necessarily to be supposed that these winged geniuses took any definite part in the king's bloodthirsty activities. Exactly what their function was has not been determined, but they appear most frequently in the performance of some ceremonial rite connected with a highly stylized tree that has been identified as a form of date palm. The one in the Institute's sculpture probably represented the left figure in a group of two facing one of these trees. The little bucket held in his left hand is one of the ubiquitous accessories of these demi-gods. Another object frequently carried by them is a pine cone, with which they appear to be fertilizing the tree.Whatever their function, these winged figures must have occupied an important place in the Assyrian scheme of life, for they appear in great numbers in the friezes that decorated the rooms of the king's palace. They are particularly illuminating with regard to the Assyrian sculptural style, because they illustrate the treatment of the body in both its clothed and nude parts. In the figures that were fully clothed, as are those of the king and his cup-bearer in the Metropolitan's relief, it will be seen that the body is stifled in the sumptuous, heavy garments concealing it. The Assyrians were quite incapable of conveying a sense of form beneath their draperies, and rendered it summarily. In the nude portions, however, as will be seen in the Institute's relief, they lavished up the rendering of muscular development all the care that is notable in their treatment of costume and detail. It is an exaggerated and extremely stylized treatment, highly decorative in effect.The detail involved in the rendering of costume, accessories, beards, and hair, is the most outstanding characteristic of Assyrian sculptures. One feels that they are accurate, and that the Assyrians actually looked like this, apart from the individual character that must certainly have been apparent in their features. The Assyrian artists, obviously, were unable to create a portrait. Perhaps they were not interested in individual features. In any event, Assyrian portraiture, in the Egyptian sense, for example, did not exist.The Assyrian type did exist and we know what it was, thanks to the sculptures unearthed by Sir Henry Layard. It is seen in the Institute's relief: in the massive, muscular figure, and the proud head with its carefully arranged hair and beard. The long, lavishly fringed garment draped over a short skirt, the fretwork banding of the girdle through which two daggers are thrust, and rosette bracelets, the long, delicately wrought earrings, and the strapped sandals, all leave an indelible impression of the appearance of the typical Assyrian.At first it will seem an awkward and impossible rendering. The profile head topping a body of which the shoulders are shown in a front view, represents a convention with which we are not entirely at ease. Yet is grows upon the observer who regards it often, and finally loses its strangeness. That it was capable of being employed in a dramatic and convincing manner is illustrated by the Assyrians, who were more adept in its use than the Egyptians. Those who have seen the reliefs in the British Museum, or have studied the plates in Hall's Babylonian and Assyrian Sculptures in the British Museum,
know how successfully the Assyrians perpetuated the spirit of their civilization with it. In the history of artistic achievement it stands as one of the most vigorous of the arts that contributed to the Greek tradition which was to become, in turn, our own. The Institute's relief is a characteristic and commanding example of that art, and one that is a most fitting purchase from the Ethel Morrison Van Derlip Fund in view of Mrs. Van Derlip's life-long interest in ancient art.Referenced Works of Art
- Head of a Winged Genius. Detail of a Relief from Nimrud. Assyrian, IX Century B.C. Ethel Morrison Van Derlip Fund.
- Stone Relief of a Winged Genius from the Palace of King Ashur-nasir-pal at Nimrud. One of a group of sculptures excavated by Sir Henry Layard about 1850. Assyrian, IX Century B.C.